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August 27, 2009

Prospectus Today

No Joy in Wrigleyville?

by Joe Sheehan

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I get that it's actually something of a criticism of the park for many, but I never feel so much like I'm at a neighborhood gathering as I do when I'm at Wrigley Field. It just seems like the people in the crowd know each other more than at other parks, and that this is something everyone in the community does, goes to the ballpark and cheers on the Cubs, and sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and, hopefully, "Go Cubs Go." It's not something I can, or care to, quantify, but it was the dominant impression I was left with leaving the park last night.

I just had fun. No ballpark will ever have the effect on me that Yankee Stadium II did, but of the others, Wrigley Field is my favorite. Even on a damp, cool night that featured one of the worst teams in baseball playing one of the biggest disappointments in the game, with a heaping helping of Livan Hernandez added, being there was fun. Even when it was raining in the ninth inning and Carlos Marmol was walking the park and doing the near-impossible-making Cubs fans look longingly at Kevin Gregg-it was fun.

The game was actually competitive for seven and a half innings, in part because the Cubs couldn't get to Hernandez. The game was very reminiscent of Game Three of the 2007 National League Division Series, when Hernandez allowed 10 baserunners but just one run over six innings as the Diamondbacks eliminated the Cubs. That night, Hernandez allowed the leadoff batter to reach in four of six innings and basically pitched from the stretch the entire night. The Cubs were constantly one swing from a huge inning for most of the night, and never got it. They hit into three double plays and routinely jumped at a pitcher who was best handled by sitting back and waiting for strikes.

Last night was much of the same, although the results were better for the Cubs, who got to the Nationals' bullpen for seven runs after Hernandez was taken out of the game. Prior to that, though, the Cubs had the leadoff man on in three of six frames, but scored only on a two-run homer by Milton Bradley. Hernandez worked into and out of trouble in the fourth and sixth, helped in the latter by early-count outs by Kosuke Fukudome and Jeff Baker. Beating Hernandez isn't that difficult, you simply have to wait him out and make him put balls in the strike zone. The Cubs didn't do enough of that last night.

Of course, that's the story of the season for the Cubs, who have failed to score enough runs to contend. They're 10th in the NL in runs and 12th in EqA. They're in the middle of the pack in OBP, SLG, doubles, and walks. They're also middle of the pack, more or less, in various categories of batted balls. They hit homers-134, tied for fourth in the league-which makes up for the fact that they don't hit for average at all, they hold just a .255 mark. They're awful on the basepaths, last in both steals and stolen-base percentage, which costs them a few runs. Mostly, it's a mediocre team dealing with the comedown from big 2008 seasons that haven't been repeated: Geovany Soto and Mike Fontenot fell off dramatically; Aramis Ramirez has played about as well, but has missed 70 games; Alfonso Soriano has continued his decline.

It's not the rotation. Even with the absence and ineffectiveness of Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs have an above-average rotation, featuring a still-healthy Rich Harden and a surprising rookie in Randy Wells. The bullpen hasn't been quite as good, with Gregg famously giving up a series of key home runs and a total of 12 in just 58 1/3 innings. Entrusting him with a key role was a front-office misjudgment. Marmol has an incredible arm, but simply hasn't thrown enough strikes to be a high-leverage guy; he's walked a ridiculous 52 men unintentionally in 59 1/3 innings, and angered the 15,000 or so left in the park last night with his display of wildness. Only Angel Guzman has been consistently effective. The bullpen has been the team's weak spot all season long, and you could argue that Hendry's failed imports-Aaron Heilman and Luis Vizcaino on top of Gregg-are the biggest reason why.

Here's where it gets complicated, though. Hendry worked last winter through an unusual situation, with the Cubs in the process of being sold and a lack of clarity as to who was approving expenditures. I'm not going to defend what Hendry did, which also includes trading Mark DeRosa for budgetary reasons and allowing Kerry Wood to leave, but you have to consider the context in which he made his decisions. There was no one to approve even minor additions to the payroll in an offseason where the market made a lot of talent available cheaply, and he was under significant pressure, in fact, to not add to payroll. It's unusual to talk like this about a high-revenue team, a national brand, like the Cubs, but the endless process of selling the franchise tied Hendry's hands a year ago. This team could have afforded a Juan Cruz, an Orlando Hudson, and having players like that would have made a big difference. Just keeping DeRosa while making the other moves would have helped, but to sign Bradley, Hendry had to cut payroll.

Even with all of this, the Cubs are in line to win 84 games or so, which means they'd be off expectations by about three to five games. They're being hurt by their own mediocre performance, but also by the Cardinals' fantastic season. The Cards have gotten 22 starts from Chris Carpenter, a career-altering year by Joel Pineiro, and have made three in-season position-player pickups that made them about four wins better in total. If the Cubs were 63-61 and everyone else was playing to expectation, they wouldn't look as bad. The Cardinals' exceptional performance, on the field and off, has taken away the Cubs' cushion and raised the bar in the NL Central.

The Cubs have been disappointing, but as with the Mets, they can point to some extenuating circumstances. Though not as brutal and obvious as the Mets' string of injuries to every one of their best players, the Cubs have been hampered for nearly two years by the ongoing sale of their franchise. That hindrance finally caught up to them this season, as the players they brought in performed poorly and the ones they carried over failed to play to expectations. There's no need to overreact to this season's disappointment. The new ownership can address the team's woes merely by allowing Hendry to do his job this offseason.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Cubs,  The Who,  The Process,  Angel Hernandez

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